FTRS: Let's start with the obvious question. This is year one for Pitt in the ACC. How has it been relative to the Big East, and how has it gone relative to fan expectations?
CH: I think what we've seen is an increase in competition, obviously. Pitt beat Duke, but gave up 55 points in the process and I'm still not that convinced the Blue Devils are as good as their record would indicate. They beat Virginia, but the Cavs are at or near the bottom of the league this year and had it not been for the only two touchdowns of the game that were scored off of short fields via turnovers, Pitt could have lost that game. The encouraging thing was that Pitt won those games and also was fairly competitive at Virginia Tech, losing by nine on the road. But it will be a much more difficult climb to the top of the ACC than it was in some years when they competed for Big East titles.
Regarding fan expectations, it's been about where most have anticipated. Pitt was seen by most reasonable people as a five- to seven-win team maybe topping out at eight because there are a good amount of lightweights on the schedule and they're on pace for that. At this point, I figured they would be either 4-3 or 5-2, but in either scenario, thought they'd beat Navy. So much for that. Eight wins looks entirely out of the question, but six and a bowl game are still attainable.
FTRS: As I look at the stats really quickly, Pitt's offense doesn't seem overly powerful, nor does the defense seem overly stout. However, I'm willing to bet the numbers don't tell the whole story. What's your assessment of this team? Where are its strengths and weaknesses?
CH: No, that about sums it up. No, really. Everyone (myself included) got overly excited when Pitt dumped a lot of points on Duke and New Mexico, but as I wrote earlier this week, that's been more the exception than it has the rule. The offense understandably struggled in the season opener against Florida State, but also looked subpar in several other games since. One reason I think we're seeing that is the absence of the big play that I wrote about recently. Pitt had 11 passing plays of 30 yards or more in their first three games, but only two in the last four. I'm not sure of the exact source of that, but one thing of note is that ever since Virginia Tech sacked quarterback Tom Savage eight or nine times (and pressured him numerous others), he hasn't been the same. The deep bomb has pretty much been removed from the Panthers' arsenal and that's made it more difficult to open up the run.
The defense has been very pedestrian overall. There have been good performances at times in holding Virginia to three points, and playing strong quarters and even halves. And even in the barnburner against Duke, they still forced four turnovers (yes, a team can turn the ball over four times and still score 55 points). But they've been subpar against some pretty inferior teams, giving up at least 24 points each to Navy, Old Dominion, and New Mexico. The secondary really has been the big disappointment. They returned both starting corners and three of the four starters from a unit that was in the top 25 in pass defense last year. But they've been lit up quite a bit this season - something that wasn't really expected. A lot of that has fallen on first-year coordinator Matt House, who Pitt hired after a long wait (leading most of us to believe he wasn't exactly the team's first choice). He was brought on after Dave 'Don't call me Heathcliff' Huxtable packed up and (voluntarily) left for the same job at North Carolina State in an extremely lateral move. The defensive line has been relatively strong but only because of the play from first-team All-American candidate Aaron Donald, and end Bryan Murphy who has come on a little bit.
This is just a really, really average football team right now.
FTRS: Senior QB Tom Savage is quite the journeyman, with stints at Rutgers and Arizona before landing at Pittsburgh. How effective has he been, and who are his favorite receivers? What are his biggest strengths and weaknesses?
CH: Overall, he's probably been about where I expected. Earlier this season there was a lot of optimism after his school-record six touchdowns against Duke, but things have gone downhill lately. He's cut back on interceptions (none in the past three games after three two-interception games in his first four) but has really turned more into a game manager than a guy that makes things happen much of the time.
Savage has a strong arm and as he proved earlier, can be accurate with a deep ball. He's even shown the ability to scramble a little bit if forced out of the pocket at times. The flipside is that he's often been caught holding the ball too long and while he hasn't thrown interceptions over the past three games, there have been several that were dropped or close calls. When he does connect, it's usually to Devin Street or Tyler Boyd. Street just broke Pitt's all-time record for receptions over a career and is also on pace to break the school record for career receiving yards. Boyd is right behind him, but hasn't been involved much lately - I wrote about that here. After 100-yard receiving games in three of the first four contests, he's had only 101 yards COMBINED over the last three. Pitt's offense is a lot better when he's involved.
FTRS: For a Paul Chryst-coached team, it seems like this group has plenty of issues running the ball. Only 3 of 7 games have seen 150 yards rushing, and only one conference game has even seen 100. What's going on there? Is it more of an issue in the backfield or up front?
CH: It's a little bit of everything to be honest. First things first, technically the sacks Pitt has taken has hurt the rushing totals. I'm not sure if the numbers you've quoted took that into account, but even if they did, it's been a mixed bag.
Part of it's the line. None of the five starters started or were at the same position as last year. The two guards were both tackles last year and Pitt is breaking in three new starters including two underclassmen and an upperclassman tackle who is a converted defensive lineman. The lineman cupboard was pretty bare when Chryst first came on board, but he's definitely improving it. He recruited five offensive linemen last year, the most Pitt has had in a single class in quite a while. He's recruiting more this year and with five-star tackle Dorian Johnson last season and a few four-star kids either currently on the team or coming next year, things are looking up. But it will be at least another year or two before things are significantly better in my opinion.
The other thing is that Pitt suffered a big blow when they lost Rushel Shell, one of the top running back recruits in the nation in 2012. He split time with Ray Graham last season as a true freshman and was the expected starter this year. He essentially left the program over any number of issues depending on who you ask to go to UCLA, changed his mind and wanted back only to be denied, and then decided on West Virginia. The key thing is that the team lost the guy that was supposed to be leading the backfield for the next two to three years. The guys behind him have had some good games, but aren't stars. The pair have had good games against weaker opponents, but have struggled against better teams.
FTRS: Defensively, Pitt is allowing a lot more points per game than in previous seasons. (Since 2010, the most in a season was 22.8 ppg -- this season has been 27.6 ppg.) Is the unit young, or under new management? Is it simply a factor of playing tougher competition?
CH: There were a lot of returners but as I alluded to earlier, more blame has been (and probably should be) placed on Matt House. As I mentioned, the secondary was expected to be a strong point with three starters returning to a top 25 unit, but they've struggled. The astonishing thing is that House was actually the secondary coach, so go figure.
One thing he has come under criticism for is pretty soft coverage a lot of times. We saw a lot of it against Florida State and the conventional thought was that Pitt needed to play back against their speed and talent at receiver. But even as the soft coverage didn't work, House stuck with it. That's continued throughout the season and while the defense has played well at times, they haven't been very consistent.
Another fault of House's was seen in the game against Old Dominion. Granted, you shouldn't need all of your starters to beat a team in transition to the FBS, but House sat Pitt's best linebacker, Todd Thomas, because they played mostly a nickel/dime coverage and he wasn't a fit for that apparently. You've almost always got to find ways to get your best players on the field. The good coaches play fit schemes around players when necessary - not the other way around. As you can imagine, the coaches took a lot of heat for that from fans.
I'm not one of those 'blame the coaches' types of guy and I think continuity should always be the first option. The way programs get built for the long haul is, in my opinion, consistency at the top. That's not always the case, but stability is vastly underrated. And trust me, getting rid of a coach (one that had success as a position coach, I add) is something that doesn't happen very often. I'm not sure with absolute certainty that House should be fired already, but he's the guy in charge and the defense has to get better.
FTRS: Finally, do you have a prediction for this game? Can Pitt rebound off of the loss to Navy, or will things be worse than last week?
CH: We'll have our picks on Friday, but I went with Georgia Tech. Is it a game Pitt can win? Certainly. The surprising aspect of defending the option won't be there since the team just faced Navy. Tech obviously has better athletes than Navy, but I think that experience should help. I'm also not sure that Georgia Tech is an unbeatable team for Pitt. Both played their only common opponents, Virginia and Virginia Tech, about the same and Georgia Tech just doesn't scream invincible to me. That said, the Panthers have had trouble against teams with quality defenses and Tech fits that bill. With a home game at night, that only adds to their advantage. I'll say the Yellow Jackets win by 7-10 points.
Thanks again to Anson for all the answers! Go check out his team's coverage of this weekend at Cardiac Hill, and follow Anson on Twitter!